Letter from Australia

Issue section: 

Protests have erupted across Australia at the new Tory government's anti-refugee policies.

On the Sunday before Easter several thousand people took to the streets in cities across Australia to protest against the Tory government's anti-refugee policies. It was the latest of a series of mass protests focused mainly, but not exclusively, on the Abbott government's harsh refugee policies. One feature of the rallies was the prominence in Sydney of 13 different trade unions participating in a "Unions for Refugees" contingent while the secretary of Unions New South Wales was a key speaker on the platform.

"Stop the boats" was a central slogan of the Abbott government's landslide election victory last September - a reference to the boats that bring asylum seekers from Indonesia to Australia to seek protection. The previous Labor Party government had already implemented "Fortress Australia" policies that effectively expelled all asylum seekers to the poor Pacific countries of Papua New Guinea and Nauru and denied them resettlement in Australia. In fact, in the run-up to last year's election offshore processing of refugees was the focus of protests by tens of thousands angry at Labor's betrayals.

Once in office, Labor's policies were ruthlessly embraced and extended by the Tories who immediately established a military-commanded "Operation Sovereign Borders" to intercept asylum seekers and return them to Indonesia.

Asylum seekers have been pepper-sprayed and handcuffed. In one incident asylum seekers reportedly had their hands burned as they were captured and their boats taken over. The "turnarounds" have been condemned by the United Nations as violations of international refugee law and being akin to people-trafficking. The offshore processing centres of Manus Island and Nauru have also been widely condemned.

But the turning point in the fight over asylum seekers came in February, when Reza Barati, a 23 year old Iranian asylum seeker, was bludgeoned to death, and scores of others badly injured, by security guards and police on Manus Island. Tens of thousands took to the streets in demonstrations and vigils across Australia after the government lied about Reza's murder.

Less than a month later there were again tens of thousands on the aptly-named March in March demonstrations. These protests were organised almost solely through social media, yet drew a broad cross-section of people in protest against every aspect of the Abbott government - climate change, education funding, cuts to single parent benefits and Medicare, and significantly its treatment of refugees.

The Abbott government has suffered the fastest drop in popularity of any Australian government in the last 40 years - more evidence that people voted against Labor, rather than voting for Abbott. The government has become even more desperate to focus on "stopping the boats" as it attempts to maintain its popularity and divert attention from job losses, the worsening economic situation and looming budget attacks on welfare. It would be in even greater trouble but Labor's support for the Tory's anti-refugee policies means it is incapable of giving any lead to the growing anti-government sentiments.

The previous Labor government spent six years reinforcing myths and demonising asylum seekers as criminals.
Now the Tories have called a Royal Commission (read witch hunt) into "trade union governance and corruption". Rather than meet the challenge head-on, Labor leaders have announced more reforms to distance the party from the unions, embracing more Blairite New Labour style reforms.

Tragically, the unions have committed themselves to cooperating with the Royal Commission rather than organising a concerted campaign of industrial action to challenge the government. With more budget cuts to welfare likely and more anti-union laws, pressure will build on the union leaders to take action.

The refugee and March in March protests, however, show there is a very real potential to fight the Abbott government and for it to be restricted to a one-term wonder. The refugee campaign has taken on the anti-refugee racism that was one of the essential ideological props for the Tories.

The protests have dealt a blow to its ability to blame refugees for cuts to healthcare provision and public transport.